During the last days of 2023, the Times-Age polled Wairarapa’s elected leaders about what they see as the biggest opportunities and challenges facing the region this year.
For Mike Butterick, who won the Wairarapa electorate for National in October’s general election, the biggest local challenge is the same that’s faced by the country as a whole: “Cost of living, driven by inflation – this is impacting everyone, so the main focus is on reducing this and getting the country back on track.”
Another more regionally specific challenge is “the stresses that rural businesses are experiencing”, Butterick said, and while he acknowledges the current poor commodity prices our agricultural output is earning are “market-led”, he sees “opening new markets, and better clarity around legislation” as two things the government can do to provide the sector with more confidence.
As for opportunities, he has said many times before, and he said it again: “A refocus on the importance of education is one of the biggest opportunities we have.
“Our children are our future, and I’m really excited about our government’s emphasis on it.”
Masterton District Council [MDC] Mayor Gary Caffell is of the view that the biggest challenge facing “all councils” is convincing central government to pony up more money for its local counterparts.
“As stated by the bipartisan Future for Local Government report, the government needs to create funding mechanisms that allow councils to avoid the significant rate increases that are virtually guaranteed across the country for the next year,” Caffell said.
“Three Waters is a case in point – without a clear path to tread, councils can’t plan with any certainty how to shape their long-term plans in that hugely important and expensive area.”
That said, Caffell declared himself “optimistic about our future”, noting there are “several major projects are in the pipeline” [some of which are “promoted and financed by agencies outside council”] that he believes will “hugely enhance employment and tourism opportunities here” – opportunities MDC’s councillors and staff are “willing and able to embrace”.
Like Caffell, South Wairarapa District Council Mayor Martin Connelly professed to be upbeat about the prospects of 2024, although – also like Caffell – he sees central government “leadership” on New Zealand-wide infrastructure problems as of immediate importance.
And on the subject of infrastructure, Connelly expressed his hope that “someone in the new government will look at the 80kmh speed limit on State Highway 2, use their common sense, and return the speed to 100kmh.”
Connelly is also unperturbed by forecasts of little economic growth in the short term, and remains “confident that the underlying conditions for Wairarapa businesses are sound. The reasons why businesses set up here in the first place are not changing”.
An anticipated highlight of the new year “will surely be the opening of the new ambulance station in Masterton”, which will be a “huge asset” for the entire region, Connelly said, and although 2024 will inevitably throw up some unwelcome surprises, Cyclone Gabrielle showed last year that “we can pull together as a region and work co-operatively for the greater good”.
Meanwhile, Carterton District Mayor Ron Mark was clearly keen to set the agenda for the year straight out of the gate, “even at the risk of upsetting people”.
For Mark’s money, the primary opportunity and challenge for the region this year – and next – is getting the merger of the three councils across the line in order to eliminate triplicated costs and pool the required resources to tackle inescapable issues and their associated costs.
These include “the skyrocketing cost” of maintaining Wairarapa’s extensive roading network, population growth pressures, ageing and inadequate infrastructure, and more frequent and more destructive weather events.
“The only way Wairarapa will survive going forward while keeping rates rises reasonable is by downsizing the administrative overheads and reducing costs – like two mayors, two chief executives, and two chief financial officers, for example,” Mark said.
“It’s time to put aside parochial self-interest for the good of Wairarapa as a whole. The community simply can’t sustain the kind of rates hikes that seem to be baked into councils’ forward planning.
“The only way to address that is to take a knife to council costs, and that means one council governing Wairarapa, not the ongoing protection of personal fiefdoms and kingdoms, which ultimately doesn’t benefit anyone in the region.
“We can still get amalgamation done by 2025, but it needs commitment now, given the failure of shared service arrangements. It seems all my warnings and words of caution are falling on deaf ears in South Wairarapa and Masterton.”